The Immortal Interface

I’m going to write about IMMORTALITY (2022), if you’ve not played that game yet it’s one I would suggest playing. Like if there’s a horror movie people say you have to watch before they want to talk about it with you, because they don’t want to lessen the experience.

I’ve written about Immortality (2022) before, in a beginner’s guide designed for people who might be struggling to get the most out of the game. I was paid $18USD for around 6 hours work, so go figure about why no-one wants to stay in games journalism.

The part I’m meant to be thankful about, that I get to play games for work, was probably the least enjoyable way to approach the game.

However, it’s a good game by my estimation, since it really fills the space with a little or a lot of almost everything I enjoy.

I went into it seeing it as an archival text, and it very much is that, a fictional archive, surrounding the life of Marissa Marcel, an actor of whom these clips from unreleased movie material and ephemera seem to be all that remain.

You observe at first a full archive of film clips. This archive then ‘glitches out’, so to speak, and you are left with one clip, a talk show interview with Marissa in which you are guided through the steps of working with the archive. You can scrub through film clips to examine them, and select objects within each frame that connect to and restore other clips in the archive.

It’s a restoration project, uncovering the rest of the archive, but also finding within the clips the events that build a narrative of Marissa’s character, the fate of these lost movie projects, people’s personal lives and disappearances.

As much as it is inspired by film and literature, creating these wonderful aesthetic homages, Immortality is a game about interactivity. These two gimmicks, a narrative centred on film history and power, and the interactive voyeurism of an archive, are spliced together and within them contain a secret.

Immortality as a game creates a visible interface, a mediation zone, that brings us into contact with an array of different types of media all centred around one woman. The idea of the interface is pushed forwards by Alexander Galloway, who states that these ‘zones’ are “concerned as much with unworkability and obfuscation, as with connectivity and transparency.” This is considered by Galloway, via games and the designing of interactivity with media forms, as a predominant mode of contemporary capitalist culture. This book and it’s ideas is spoken on a lot more in the Ranged Touch show Homestuck Made This World.

With Immortality it is as though they sat down with the idea of an ‘interface’ first, and then pulled out all the wires in order to see what makes one go. I can click on things to unlock more similar things, and in those things there’s more clicking to be done… but not if I click the same thing over too many times, now I have to change tactic, and click other stuff. The game then hinges on making it so that this basic archival interface is ultimately not enough to discover ‘the truth’, and that inside this system of operation is a secret, deeper level.

The planned wrinkle, the obfuscation and the ‘spoiler’ is all an act of this type of design. If I try to scrub back through footage I will sometimes encounter beings who do not appear in the film otherwise, a secret layer of imagery, a spectre that haunts the pictures.

This is not built into the structure of the collection of clips however, if I click on an image from these secret moments, it is not saved to my wall of images as every other thing I have clicked on is. If I want to see the secret content I unlocked again, then I have to repeat my actions with the specific piece of film.

The interface has been hiding something from me, not just in the narrative of the film sets and Marrisa’s experiences, but also in the mechanics of interaction with the film. If I hadn’t scrubbed backwards at a specific speed, at a specific point in one clip, I would not have seen these hidden moments.

I have seen complaints about the interactive nature of the game as being hard to use. I would agree. If I hadn’t spent 5 years using university and library archival tools, often in French, a language I’m not fluent in, I would also probably think that the scrubbing and image searching tools are obtuse. It didn’t occur to me that people would find it annoying, but I fully understand the frustration with hiding your game’s ‘moment’ in the very idea of “poor ux”, a scrubbing tool that it’s hard to control the precise speed of, but which requires you to do so to unveil more layers of play.

It took me a long time, almost to the end of the game, to figure that on the controller I was using it was much easier to use the D-Pad to move single frames and trigger the secret clips once found. Thus the narrative exploration that these secrets provide is as much tied to the obfuscation of the control system used to locate them, as the story that contextualises them and which they add to.

Is it necessary to rival the Wellcome Collection’s digital archive as experienced on mobile in the obtuseness of your UX to create a game that relies on an archival staging ground? I don’t know. Was it deeply satisfying and intriguing to me? Of course. Do I have questions related to the story once the ‘secrets’ are revealed? Not really. Do I have good memories and new reflections on what I played? Yes.

This is the thing with the design principle of an interface that hides a hidden thing, just like a movie that relies on a twist, once that thing happens, air is let out of the balloon. It falls upon the spectator to provide the rest of the fuel. In terms of the amount of people who have played this game because people have been annoying about there being a twist that you have to see, I’m sure it’s more than a couple.

I do think that, for its many exquisitely played ‘normal’ scenes, Immortality’s design relies on the thematic reveal, the interface meta, to pull a twist on an already compelling story. A piece of fiction about people trying to make films, be human and take joy in art, to have sex and resist abuse, then to tell stories about sex and abuse, is heightened supernaturally in a way that ultimately never captures me as much as Marissa’s mortal conflicts do.

Something about David Lynch and other filmmakers whose style of storytelling Immortality borrows from, is that sense of something beyond the walls controlling everything. You can see this in the films on the letterboxd list put together by the game’s creators.

However, whereas that thing is usually hidden under a blanket within those films, in Immortality the move is to point to the thing and go “look, this is what has been making things all weird.” In all honesty, while delightfully iconic, I definitely gave this revelation my love for the campness on display, for the queer desire to see things just Give against the grain, rather than as a masterwork of supernatural fiction.

But, of course, this is a game, and to have something in a game that isn’t explained to death? Sacrilege.

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